Taquisara, almost for the first time in his life, did not know how to act, but in accepting Veronica’s invitation he felt that he could really be of use to Gianluca, and he saw how unbendingly determined the young princess was that he should stay. He had very good reasons for not staying, but they were of such a nature that he could not explain them to her. He had the power, he thought, to leave Muro at a moment’s notice, and in yielding to Veronica’s insistence, he was only submitting, as a gentleman should, in small matters, rather than engage in a contest of will with a woman. Yet he knew the matter was neither small nor indifferent, when he gave way to her, and afterwards.
Gianluca appeared at the dinner hour and reached the dining-room with his friend’s help. He was placed on Veronica’s left, in consideration of being an invalid, though Taquisara should have been there, according to Italian laws of precedence. Veronica had insisted that Don Teodoro should come, at all events on this first evening. She did not choose that the learned old priest should be merely the companion of her loneliness; and besides, she knew that his presence would probably prevent the Duca and Duchessa from returning to the question of her solitary mode of life. She was also willing to let them see that the humble curate was a man of the world.
It was a day of surprises for the old couple, and their manners were hard put to it to conceal their astonishment at the way in which Veronica dined. They were, indeed, accustomed to a singular simplicity in the country, and to country dishes, as almost all the more old-fashioned Italians are, but in the whole course of their highly and rigidly aristocratic lives they had never been waited on by two women in plain black frocks and white aprons. The Duca, indeed, found some consolation in the delicious mountain trout, the tender lamb, the perfect salad, and the fine old malvoisie, for he liked good things and appreciated them; but the Duchessa’s nature was more austerely indifferent to the taste of what she ate, while her love of established law insisted with equal austerity that any food, good or bad, should be brought before her in a certain way, by a certain number of men, arrayed in coats of a certain cut, and shaven till their faces shone like marble. In a measure, it was a slight upon her dignity, she thought, that Veronica should let her be served by waitresses. On the other hand, she reflected upon the conversation which had taken place at tea, and was forced to admit that she had then discovered the only theory on which she could accept Veronica’s anomalous position, and conscientiously remain in the house. Either she must look upon the castle of Muro and its inhabitants as a sort of semi-religious community of women, or else, in her duty to the world, and the station to which she had always belonged, she must raise her voice in protests,